Ken Burns: Making History Watchable

The man who filmed TV's `The Civil War' says it tapped into an American hunger for self-definition

THE CIVIL WAR'' - the most-watched series ever aired on public television - hints at TV's potential ``to become our new Homeric mode, the campfire where our epic poems are sung,'' says Ken Burns. The young filmmaker's acclaimed 11-hour documentary premi`ered last week to a record-breaking PBS viewership of 14 million. Mr. Burns, reached by phone at his home/office in Walpole, N.H., says he is ``surprised and delighted'' by the overwhelming response. It confirms something he believed all along: ``The Civil War touches some incredibly powerful chord in us.''

He credits the series' success, in part, to its ``new way'' of presenting the past - ``not only with an eye towards the great men but the ordinary men.'' He believes this sort of ``trickle-up/trickle-down history ... makes for really compelling storytelling,'' the perfect antidote for a generation ``convinced that history is some boring medicine ... and not the exquisite drama that it is.''

To convey on television the impact of the bloodiest, most deep-seated conflict in the nation's history, Burns and his colleagues at Florentine Films persuaded a stellar cast - including Julie Harris, Jason Robards Jr., Morgan Freeman, Jeremy Irons, and many more - to read the words of foot soldiers, diarists, generals, and statesmen while the camera slowly panned across war photos.

He also used music of the 1860s and authentic battle sounds to complement the treasure trove of archival photographs and war relics pictured, along with footage of battlefields and other historic sites, commentary by distinguished present-day historians, and even film of Civil War veterans.

Burns believes the series does both less and more than the many books on the war. ``Television doesn't have the equipment to carry the myriad details and facts and dates of a good history book,'' he says. ``But at the same time it has an emotional pitch much greater than any book. And that is what we tried honorably - and I want to stress the word `honorably' - to tap into: to retell the story without false manipulation.

``That is not entirely possible,'' he continues, ``and there are always the times when poetic license will be a little bit louder than it should be and when historic `truth' might take a back seat. But, for the most part, we tried to find a real balance....''

How the war shaped the American self-image is a recurring theme in the series and in Burns's conversation. ``The Civil War made us who we are in good and bad ways,'' he says. ``It is the birthplace of feminism; it's a place where we played out a continuing civil-rights drama. And then on many minor levels - [it is] about Wall Street speculators, the imperial presidency, and how much power a president should have in a democracy.''

Viewers were struck by the articulate reflections of people like South Carolina diarist Mary Chestnut, New York lawyer George Templeton Strong, Rhode Island army private Elisha Hunt Rhodes, as well as Lincoln, Douglass, and Lee.

Many were deeply moved by a letter from Rhode Island soldier Sullivan Ballou, written to his wife shortly before his death at Bull Run. He told of his ``willingness to lay down all my joys in this life to help maintain the Government'' but of how hard it was ``to burn to ashes the hopes of future years when we might still have lived and loved together and seen our sons grown up to honorable manhood....'' In the most touching passage, he assured her his affection would outlast even death itself.

The five years Burns poured into researching and filming materials like the Ballou letter have made the contrasts between our own century and the last one stand out in bold relief to him. ``We're different in that we're not so eloquent,'' he says, ``not so concerned with posterity, not so concerned with the heroic gesture or living honorable lives the way so many of the people were then.''

But he finds the parallels even more striking. ``The issues of the Civil War echo down to our contemporary battlefields, thankfully less bloody but no less passionate....''

If he could climb into a time machine, the person he would most like to meet is Lincoln, ``the most extraordinary American who has ever lived,'' says Burns. ``Of course, he is very smothered in myth. We found it necessary to get behind that, and I think the portrait that we presented of him is flawed, human, funny at times, sad, real, but - ultimately, finally - the man of the age.''

It should come as no surprise that Burns, who has made movies about Huey Long, the Brooklyn Bridge, and the Shakers, hopes to do one about Lincoln someday. But not until he finishes ``Empire of the Air,'' a film about radio's early ``inventors, pioneers, and promoters,'' and ``a much longer, more ambitious series'' on the history of baseball.

Meanwhile, we haven't seen the last of ``The Civil War.'' It already is being distributed by PBS Video in Alexandria, Va., to high schools around the country, complete with a teacher's manual and 40-page study guide for students, paid for by the program's corporate underwriter, General Motors.

The series also is being marketed for home use by Time-Life Video, of Alexandria, in a package of nine cassettes priced at $180, or $24.95 apiece. It will be rerun on PBS stations five times over the next three years, beginning in January 1991. And the companion book - ``The Civil War: An Illustrated History'' (Knopf, $50), with riveting photographs and a lucid text by historian Geoffrey C. Ward and others - is selling briskly.

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